About Laurie @ RelevantObscurity

Books sustain my Soul

A Single Thread, Tracy Chevalier (2019)

And now for something entirely different!

singlethreadAs most of you know, this blog reflects a passion for classic literature–in particular, my love for the 19th and early 20th centuries knows no bounds. Every once in awhile, though, I read a review on someone’s blog of a more modern novel that for whatever reason piques my interest. When I read Sandra’s (A Corner of Cornwall) review of A Single Thread, by Tracy Chevalier, something compelled me to read it.

I enjoyed the book immensely. It was just what I’d hoped it would be as a respite and a calm pause to break the day to day turbulence of the news cycle that I often get caught up in. The book is a wonderful character driven account of a subset of people engaged in activities that were new to me and a main character whose emotional journey truly captivated me.

But I enjoyed this book so much more for two items in the story making me realize I probably would never have recognized them had I not started this blog. But first, a brief review.

A Single Thread is a simple story of a woman’s loss and grief and the will to find meaning in a life she otherwise never would have chosen. The book opens in 1932 and centers on Violet Speedwell, an English “surplus woman,” grieving the loss of her brother and fiancé who both died in the Great War. Like many women of a certain age whose prospects for marriage are minimal due to the number of men who died, she is finding it difficult to construct her future. She lives with her mother, herself grieving the loss of her son, and their relationship is difficult and strained. Violet puts in for a job transfer to the nearby cathedral town of Winchester, where she finds herself drawn to the community of embroidering women who make kneelers and seat cushions for the church, which she comes to see as a way for her posterity to be marked.

Violet embodies the great emotional and financial difficulties of these single women within a society that is not sure where they belong or how to treat them, as she struggles against village gossip, physical violence and familial ignorance. In the end, Violet, as we would say today, ‘finds her people’ in the most unlikely characters and creates a family support system that includes biological family and neighborhood friends. For a much more in depth and engaging review, please go to Sandra’s post.

As I read I was surprised by two references that brought to mind some of the reading and writing I have created on this blog as I pursue classic literature.

While I have never been to the city of Winchester, I am aware of a special object mentioned in the novel that it is known for that I recognized from my participation in Witch Week 2017. The theme for that year, “Dreams of Arthur,” gave me the idea to do a piece on King Arthur’s Round Table. A model of sorts exists in the Great Hall at Winchester Castle, believed to have been made in about the year 1290. The table top is 5.5 meters in diameter, weighing in at about 1200kg. It is without its table legs and hangs on the west wall. The artwork on the top dates later, to the reign of Henry VIII and shows a Tudor rose in the center and Henry as King Arthur surrounded by the 24 names of Arthur’s knights. When I saw it mentioned in the novel, with a bit of pride I realize my contribution to Witch Week gives me a secret connection to Winchester Cathedral and its Round Table, whether I have ever been there or not!

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The second reference is to a book one of the characters is reading, Gilbert White’s, The Natural History of Selborne, that celebrates the natural world around the town. Last summer I saw it sitting on a bookstore shelf and found myself immersed in his descriptions of the animals and plants of Selborne and although here, too, is a place I have never been, I was drawn to it as I am with one of my favorite natural histories of a place (I also have never been to), Aldo Leopold’s, The Sand County Alamanc, a natural history around Leopold’s home in the state of Wisconsin. I bought the Selborne book laughing to myself at how odd I am, excited about my discovery and wondering if anyone had ever heard of it. Then to find it referenced in a contemporary novel, I was pleased, and the laugh was on me!

I don’t judge my interest in the past and whether or not it has relevance to anything important in the world or my life in the present. After all, I majored in Medieval history. And I don’t know why I am so drawn to the late 19th century now. But the pleasure of seeing these connections in my reading after over four years of concentrating on the classics, gives me a certain satisfaction that history is not a void, but full of threads that from time to time connect themselves into my present. And it is then I know all this immersing myself in a time period long gone is worth it.

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Title: A Single Thread
Author: Tracy Chevalier
Publisher: Viking
Device: Hardcover
Year: 2019
Pages: 336

Frankenstein, Mary Shelley (1818)

“Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated;…perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.”
Mary Shelley

“Alas! I had turned loose into the world a depraved wretch, whose delight was in carnage and misery…”
Victor Frankenstein

 

frankensteinThe catalyst for Frankenstein Mary Shelley explains, is that she and her husband Percy were visiting the home of Lord Byron one dark and stormy night, when Byron laid down the challenge that each must tell a ghost story. Byron and Percy were able to create a story on the spot, but it took Mary a few days. In fact, she dreamed it. The result is one of the world’s most well-known classic tales of necromancy and Gothic story-telling.

As often happens when I read a classic novel that has seen countless film adaptations, I was very surprised that the book tackles far more than just the ‘monster parts.’  Shelley proposes thoughtful and deep topics and asks questions about personal responsibility, the quest for life’s purpose and leaves me wondering whether a monster has a soul?

Frankenstein is told as a story within a story by Robert Walton who is at sea and is corresponding with his sister, Margaret. But when the ship gets stuck in the ice floes of the Arctic, in the span of a few hours two very odd things happen. First, the crew spots a huge human-like creature driving a sledge with a pack of dogs passing at a distance. The next morning, they find another man, but more normal-looking, who is also driving a sledge, floating near them on the ice. He is near dead. The crew rescues him, revives him and while recuperating tells Walton how he came to be floundering on an ice floe in the middle of the Arctic. Walton records the tale for his sister in a journal. Frankenstein is the story of Victor Frankenstein, youthful scientist and budding necromancer whose interest in natural philosophy takes a turn from the traditional path of changing lead into gold to the perilous route toward creating life from death.

At university, Victor studies physiology, anatomy, the life process and the progression of death; he visits charnel houses and sees how the body corrupts and wastes away after the bloom of life.

After days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue, I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter….It was already one in the morning….I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

After two years of working toward this goal of animating life from death Frankenstein succeeds. But instead of celebrating the work, he is horrified. He has created a creature, a monster. He cannot sleep for the nightmares that consume his waking and sleeping hours and falls into a many-month illness. From the very beginning that sparked the life of the monster, Victor is unable to accept responsibility for what he has created or the repercussions of the monster’s actions. This weakness in character will hound him for the rest of this life.

Meanwhile, the monster flees the town. He is a fully formed human-like man and as he roams the countryside coming into contact with people he not only sees, but feels their fear and disgust. He shows up near Victor’s home and kills his younger brother. Victor is still at university when he hears William has been murdered; he knows it is the monster. Unable to confess to the authorities what he knows for fear of being branded insane, he keeps quiet. An investigation and trial is held for the murder and through circumstantial evidence Justine, a trusted family servant of the Frankenstein’s is convicted of the crime and hanged. “The first hapless victims of my unhallowed arts.”

The monster is desperate for a place of refuge and finds it in an abandoned hovel near a cottage. The cottage is occupied by a brother, sister and their father. Through watching the interactions of the siblings as they care for their blind father he learns how they take care of one another, how they speak in kindness toward each other and what it means to be part of a family. Aware of his physical deformities he knows to keep out of sight, but he takes a chance on the father when the children are away during the day and forms a friendship with him. But the day comes when the children see him and the family flees the cottage. Brokenhearted, the monster understands his kindness or concern for others will always be outweighed by his physical appearance. There is no place on earth for him.

Where were my friends and relations? No father had watched my infant days, no mother had blessed me with smiles and caresses;…From my earliest remembrance I had been as I then was in height and proportion. I had never yet seen a being resembling me, or who claimed any intercourse with me. What was I?

The monster finally confronts Frankenstein and describes his life, how he came to speak, to think, to understand society by watching this family. And now, by bitter experience he will never be able to live as they do, in a family or as a common man.

Remember, that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Every where I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably  excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.

He pleads with Frankenstein to make him a companion like himself, so he can live as he sees others doing.

You must create a female for me, with whom I can live in the interchange of those sympathies necessary for my being….I now indulge in dreams of bliss that cannot be realized

What I ask of you is reasonable and moderate; I demand a creature of another sex, but as hideous as myself….we shall be monsters…Our lives will not be happy, but they will be harmless, and free from the misery I now feel.

The monster compels Frankenstein to this task and promises to live in secret, perpetrating no violence to any animal and away from any human contact.

Victor Frankenstein indeed created a monster, but what is amazing about this one is his heart, soul and intelligence. He has the potential to be every bit as kind and compassionate, moral and honest as any other man, yet he will never be accepted because of his physical appearance. No matter his good works or heroic deeds, his physical presentation will always negate his integrity.

My Thoughts

Victor Frankenstein turns his back on what he created. He abandons him on the first night, but once he hears his story, it is obvious this is a feeling, thinking human-type being, deserving of assistance, mercy and companionship. Would someone who created life really reject it like he did? The monster may be hideous to look at, but inside he is made like any other human being with the full capacity of feelings and outlook on life.

Would you reject a “nonperfect” child and would you expect it to fend for itself? Or is this something entirely different? Because the monster is not a helpless baby, but came into the world fully formed, who learned to speak, to cultivate his intelligence, to live in the world through observation, because he was made with wisdom already intact. Does he have a soul? He acts like it. He quickly becomes Victor’s intellectual equal. And Victor is given ample opportunity to make things right for him, instead he gives into fear.

Hounded for years by the being he created, Victor dies on the ship still unrepentant and without accepting any responsibility toward the monster; even as he lay dying he just wants the wretch dead.

The fate of the monster is sealed at Frankenstein’s death. Walton hears noises coming from the room where Frankenstein has died. He sees that it is the monster lamenting his existence that there will now never be redress against the man who created him.

Frankenstein forced him to a life of misery and neglect and now he will end his own on a “funeral pile triumphantly, and exult in the agony of the torturing flames….my ashes will be swept into the sea by the winds. My spirit will sleep in peace….”Frankenstein1818.jepg

Shelley goes through such pains to tell the monster’s story and she imbues the creature with humanity and sympathy as with any other human being. She shows his compassion, his intelligence; he is creative, hard-working and capable of contributing positively to society. He develops the full capacity of feelings, agency and responsibility for others and this is to me the tragedy of Frankenstein and his monster.

Because the monster is a victim. And it is easy to interpret Frankenstein as a warning for these modern times as science advances toward cloning and other forms of creating genetically modified life. Can we use Frankenstein as a forewarning to illustrate imagination gone wrong, to get us to think about the results of such experimentation and to ask how and what we are responsible for when we take these steps? Is creation and human life about outward appearances as we go about creating perfect people? What do we owe to them when they turn out to be not so perfect?

Once I falsely hoped to meet with beings, who, pardoning my outward form, would love me for the excellent qualities which I was capable of unfolding. I was nourished with high thoughts of honour and devotion….When I run over the frightful catalogue of my sins, I cannot believe that I am the same creature whose thoughts were once filled with sublime and transcendent visions of the beauty and the majesty of goodness. But it is even so; the fallen angel becomes a malignant devil. Yet even that enemy of God and man had friends and associates in his desolation; I am alone.

___________________

 

Title: Frankenstein
Author: Mary Shelley
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 1818
Pages: 185

Challenges: RIPXIV, Classics Club, Roof Beam Reader’s TBR Pile Challenge

Remembering the Dead

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I have posted excerpts from Abbie Graham’s, Ceremonials of Common Days before.

This little book is almost a century old, and while not overtly religious is one of the most spiritually healing books I own. Graham is not well-known. I had never heard of her when I plucked this book on a whim at a library book sale. Without that happy chance, I am certain I’d go through my life never knowing her. This book that calms me, inspires me, provokes my creativity and gives me hope in the dark, I almost passed by.

At this time of the year, Halloween/All Saints/All Souls/Dia de los Muertos, when the recently dead and the ancestors call out for remembrance, Graham has this to say to me. I hope it is meaningful all around.

 

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When the kingdoms of the world have passed before me, I close my eyes that I may perceive that mightier kingdom, the kingdom of the spirit. I re-see people in terms of spiritual values.

I see people in human forms and all of the material creation as scaffolding for the spirit. When the human spirit is ready to be launched on the infinite seas, the scaffolding will be thrown aside and the spirit will slip out to sea, unencumbered, yet grateful it will be for the things of the earth that prepared it for its long voyage. All things will be hallowed that helped to shape it for that eternal launching.

Sacred, for me, will be the western prairies, the mountain streams, the lake paths, the sunrises seen above neighboring chimneys, the quiet walks along a village street, the gardens, the fragrance of old-fashioned flowers, the moonlight falling in my room, and rain at night with trees blowing.

How much these things and others shall have shaped my spirit, I shall not know, but of their daily fashioning I am aware. As my spirit, dominant and eternally adventurous, shall enter the vast seas, I shall not forget the sacramental service of the scaffolding of earth.

To all the newly departed, I say, “Bon Voyage!”

dia

 

Witch Week 2019 Begins: Villains!

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…Witch Week, when there is so much magic around in the world that all sorts of peculiar things happen…
Witch Week by Diana Wynne Jones

 

Witch Week, the annual celebration of favorite fantasy books has begun! Originally developed by Lory of Emerald City Book Review, the mantle was passed to Chris of Calmgrove and Lizzie of LizzieRossWriter.

For the next week, October 31st through November 5th, writers will be posting and discussing this year’s theme: Villains! This year is hosted on Chris’s blog and is where all the action will take place.

I am honored to be part of this wonderful event with a post up today on the White Witch of Narnia, the MOST high Villain 🙂

Here is the rundown of events for the week. So head on over WitchWeek2019 central.

Day 1: 31st October
Laurie Welch of Relevant Obscurity will look at a particular antagonist in the first published instalment of C S Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia.
Day 2: 1st November
Villains in graphic novels are examined forensically by Lizzie Ross.
Day 3: 2nd November
Joan Aiken’s villains in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase sequence are discussed by yours truly.
Day 4: 3rd November
Shakespeare has a full gallery of veritable baddies, some of whom are on the distaff side, as Sari Nichols of The View from Sari’s World will demonstrate.
Day 5: 4th November
Diana Wynne Jones’ Aunt Maria, from her novel Black Maria, is put under the spotlight by fantasy author and blogger Jean Lee.
Day 6: 5th November
Discussion of DWJ’s epic fantasy Cart & Cwidder.
Day 7: 6th November
Wrap-up post and the unveiling of the theme for Witch Week 2020, which will be hosted by Lizzie Ross.

Let the mayhem begin!

The Voyage of the Pequod Three Month Update: The Moby Dick Readalong

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off–then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

 

 

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On August 1, 2019 an intrepid band of hearties set sail under the capable leadership of Captain Brona into the unknown sea to track a whale. We are now about ⅓ into the voyage. This is a slow read of a very long book with a schedule that allows for a few chapters a week, which makes it easy to keep up and stay focused for our seven-month voyage—Ok, enough with the sailing jargon—I look forward to my morning engagement with the Pequod and her crew and for a book long on my “scared to read” list, I am staggered at how much I am enjoying the actual reading of the book.

Moby Dick isn’t only about a whale-obsessed madman. It reads like the history of whaling in the mid 19th century as told through the adventures of a specific whaling crew. It is a fascinating, at times harrowing, but always instructive course of study on the inventions, personalities, myths and legends of whaling culture. Ishmael, the main character and narrator, regularly breaks into the story to teach us something, like the invention of the crow’s-nest, the culture and heritage of the diverse international crew and he regularly muses and ponders on religion, politics and philosophy. Captain Ahab, the aforementioned obsessed madman has his story, but so does the rest of the crew and Melville shows us why a life at sea in search of the great sperm whale would be appealing to the wide variety of characters who populate the Pequod.

Melville’s writing style is engaging and easily draws you into to the adventure, but his technique is very detailed, emphasis on very, which could easily put off a reader who may not be able to engage with the subject matter–which I thought described me. I am not a sea-faring books kind of gal and would never seek out a book where that is the main focus unless something could persuade me. But now I can honestly say I was misinformed about Moby Dick. And I might never have read this book had I not been persuaded by a readalong. From the first page I felt like I was reading Henry James or Nathanel Hawthorne, two other greats who don’t shy away from details and to whom I am always engaged.

A brief tangent–It is interesting to me that I have developed rock solid prejudices about certain titles or categories of books that have been with me for a long time and that seem as “true” as anything I know. But this year have forced myself to face these prejudices and the joke is on me that Anna Karenina (the dreaded Russian novel), Moby Dick (the feared whale book) and Venetia (the silly Romance novel) may also turn out to be some of the best books I will have read this year!

But back to Moby Dick. I am making notes as I go on the tab above or you can click here and all of us on the readalong are tweeting quotes and other bits with the hashtag #mobydickreadalong, so I will not do a review until I have completed the novel.

If anyone has similar prejudices or fears about this book, I urge you to put them aside. Hopefully, you will be similarly surprised at Melville’s writing and how he has chosen to tell this whaling story.

 

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#mobydickinthewild

 

Make of Yourself A Light

I may regret this post. I believe only once in the four years of this blog have I ever posted anything political.

At the moment, though, my country the United States of America, is causing a genocide and atrocities have already been reported. We have let down and made vulnerable an ally that has protected our soldiers, taken hits for them and us and has guarded a heinous and ruthless worldwide enemy. Our soldiers have relied on the Kurds, have befriended, taught and learned from them and have now been ordered to step away while watching helplessly as they are slaughtered by Turkish forces.

Anger, shame and my own sense of helplessness preoccupies me that the US has gone down this depraved path of allowing the massacre of those who protected us.

At times like this books, the words I cherish, are often my place of refuge, rest from my own troubles as well as those outside myself and where even for a moment I can hide before tackling the stresses I know are waiting. But today the ugliness, the disappointment of this country’s brutal failure as a leader in the world and the sheer impotence of anything I could possibly do to help, has overwhelmed me. No book is a solace right now. No author’s imaginary world feels safe, if even for a moment.

But still, this is what I do. I DO expect someone wiser than me among the myriad of my books, spines straight with contents that span the ages to have something for me. So, I stand in front of my bookshelves demanding something to reach out to me, to help me find direction, healing or some sort of inspiration, hoping my neighbors or anyone walking by can’t hear, “Books, say something. Books, speak to me.”

Finally, Mary Oliver answers. I shuffle through a collection. This poem does the trick, for now. As great as she is it only feels like a temporary healing, but that is worth something.

The Buddha’s Last Instruction

“Make of yourself a light,”
said the Buddha,
before he died.
I think of this every morning
as the east begins
to tear off its many clouds
of darkness, to send up the first
signal — a white fan
streaked with pink and violet,
even green.
An old man, he lay down
between two sala trees,
and he might have said anything,
knowing it was his final hour.
The light burns upward,
it thickens and settles over the fields.
Around him, the villagers gathered
and stretched forward to listen.
Even before the sun itself
hangs, disattached, in the blue air,
I am touched everywhere
by its ocean of yellow waves.
No doubt he thought of everything
that had happened in his difficult life.
And then I feel the sun itself
as it blazes over the hills,
like a million flowers on fire —
clearly I’m not needed,
yet I feel myself turning
into something of inexplicable value.
Slowly, beneath the branches,
he raised his head.
He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd.

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Make of yourself a light, Laurie. That is all you can do.

RIP XIV Part 1 & Witch Week 2019

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RIP XIV

Autumn in Southern California does not bring with it any kind of turning inward, cool temperatures or spooky feelings. In September, the sun is still high and we have some of the hottest temperatures of the summer in September and into October. The necessary ‘woowoo’ caused by darker evenings, the robust wind and cool nights doesn’t start until October, which is when I usually begin this challenge. But I was anxious to read some of my choices this year, so I went ahead anyway and surprisingly, it was a success.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson is considered a classic in both literature and film. And while I had a difficult time with the writing in most of the book, the later quarter was worth the time. I liked being asked to think about the dual nature of good and evil as it exists in a human soul.

The next book I read, The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde thoroughly surpriseddoriangray.jpeg me. I knew the basics of the story: an artist paints a portrait of a man called Dorian Gray and it is somehow possessed so that it ages, while he stays youthful. What I didn’t know about the book is how much Wilde talks about love and beauty and what is our obligation to them? It is almost a plea to consider these concepts. Like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, there are two parts of the story, the horror part and in this case, the philosophy of aesthetics part of the story.

Lord Henry: “People say sometimes that Beauty is only superficial. That may be so. But at least it is not so superficial as Thought is. To me, Beauty is the wonder of wonders. It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.”

Dorian Gray: “I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young. It will never be older than this particular day of June. If it were only the other way.”

H.P. Lovecraft is a wonderful story teller of the macabre. He uses history, legend and popular culture to give his stories a weird and sometimes awful twist. I always thought I hated horror, but once I read his novel, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, I realized that a good story is what matters. This month I am reading several short stories in his Cthulhu Mythos. Last month I read, “The Cats of Ulthar.”

It is said that in Ulthar, which lies beyond the river Skai, no man may kill a cat; and this I can verily believe as I gaze upon him who sitteth purring before the fire. For the cat is cryptic, and close to strange things which men cannot see. He is the soul of antique Aegyptus, and bearer of tales from forgotten cities in Meroë and Ophir. He is the kin of the jungle’s lords, and heir to the secrets of hoary and sinister Africa. The Sphinx is his cousin, and he speaks her language; but he is more ancient than the Sphinx, and remembers that which she hath forgotten.

The moral of this short story? Don’t mess with the village cats, or the consequences are deadly….

For October I am also reading The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, regardless of how embarrassingly I created the last Classics Club Spin. Which just goes to show you, don’t try to stack the deck, the Spin Gods have other plans!

Witch Week 2019!

Finally, a note about this year’s Witch Week, a week-long celebration of magic and fantasy in memory of Diana Wynne Jones. Commencing as usual on October 31st and going through November 5th. This year’s theme is Villians!

cartcwidderCreated by Lory Hess at The Emerald City Book Review it is now co-hosted by Chris of Calmgrove, whose blog this year will be the center focus and Lizzie Ross at Lizzie Ross Writer. Guest posts on a variety of fantastic villains will celebrate the week as will a discussion on this year’s chosen community read, Diana Wynne Jones Cart and Cwidder. It’s not too late to pick up a copy and join the discussion. I read it for the first time and thoroughly enjoyed it. I won’t give away any plot points, but I can promise you will never look at a stringed instrument in the same way again…..

Happy season of the turning year to All, whether you are beginning Fall or Spring!

 

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